“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”
When I told people I was going to Sonoma County, they asked me which vineyards I would be doing tastings at. Many of the greatest wineries in the country hail in Northern California’s Sonoma County, producing barrel after barrel of exquisite wines that arouse the pallet and stimulate the mind. People were quick to give me recommendations, regaling me with stories of weekends spent sipping fine wines, indulging in rich cheeses and imported chocolates. They all sounded like wonderful, memorable experiences that would last a lifetime.
But fuck that, I was drinking beer.
What some people don’t realize is that Northern California is also home to some of the best craft beer breweries in the country. While middle-aged grey-hairs and snotty San Francisco hipster elitists were sipping wine, spitting it into barrels and swallowing generous portions of their egos, I was beard-deep in a pint glass of golden-brown, hops-infused malty goodness with a smile on my face and a fullness in my belly.
Adventures with Beer in Wine Country
Leaving work early to beat the traffic, Steve-O and I embarked Northward on our journey, our bellies full of lunch and anticipation (and I think Steve had a Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA in there too). We were headed for Petaluma, riding 680 through Benicia to the 780 and then taking the 101. But with every great trip comes detours, and the first one was one Steve-O had been hankering to get me to commit to ever since we passed it on our way to the Boonville Beer Festival last May.
The stop was Ernie’s Tin Bar, named because of its striking resemblance to a tin can turned on its side, and it’s general resemblance to a bar. Off of Lakeville Road on the way to Petaluma (a shortcut that ended up taking us longer), Ernie’s doesn’t try too hard to make itself known. Attached to an old garage and gas station, you’d be forgiven if you’ve driven past it without realizing the hidden gem inside. Of course, the line of cars parked around the corner might be a giveaway to some, if you’re not daft (they ain’t there to smell the roses that’s for sure).
Before we walked in Steve reminded me of the one caveat to Ernie’s: no cell phones. That’s right, if you get caught using your cell phone in Ernie’s Tin Bar, you have to buy the bar a round. My lack of wallet width and the unreliability of my cell phone made this an easy rule to adhere to. Still, I was nervous, I’ll admit.
But walking into Ernie’s I felt a sense of relief, but with slight disappointment. No one seemed to stop and stare when Steve-O and I walked in. No jeers, no snide comments, no forced exits via shotgun. No, instead what I saw was a mixture of old and older, hunkered around a bar no longer than 10 people, surrounded by the ever-watching eyes of severed buck heads and old, worn photography.
What surprised me even more were the selection of beers. Of course they had the mainstays, which is where I thought the list would end. But then I was surprised to find Anderson Valley Amber Ale, unfortunately sold out, and Anderson Valley Oatmeal Stout. Now AVB is a local brewery (the aforementioned Boonville Beer Festival is thrown by them every year), but it was still refreshing to see them on draft in a dive. Even more refreshing was finding Hoegaarden Original on tap. I quickly ordered one, Steve-O got a Racer 5 (if I remember) and we saddled up.
At first we didn’t talk much and just listened. A man next to us who sounded like Gilbert Gottfried meets Larry the Cable Guy, but looked like an average 9-5 Joe, was chatting up a storm with a guy to our right with an appropriate moustache for a bar such as this. The two were chatting it up with Ernie, the owner of the bar, who you’d think would be a man mid-60’s with a bolo tie and wrinkles on his wrinkles. Not so. Ernie couldn’t have been more than 35, lanky, small wire-frame glasses and a boyish smile. This admittedly put me at ease, for I reckoned I could beat him up, which is a claim I cannot make enough.
The stories between the men divulged into a friend’s son, in his mid-20’s, who lived at home. Since I have a similar predicament, I felt like defending my position against their condescending accusations against the man. However, I quickly held my tongue when they mentioned the man’s proclivity for “enjoying himself” on the family room couch. This would have been less of an offense, presumably, if he hadn’t been walked in upon, sitting in his birthday suit, pleasuring himself on the couch to loud pornography. More displeasing was the fact that even though he had been interrupted mid-launch, he decided being walked in on while masturbating was not a good enough reason to finish.
A few people came and went before we finished our beers. A tall, good-looking woman came in to meet her lover and their banter was predictably flirty and uncomfortable. The usual interactions between the customers took hold, so we took the chance to talk to Ernie, who was very pleased at our intended destinations. It seems Ernie was quite the beer hound himself, and was very fond of our next-day stops. This discussion reminded us of the task at hand, and since the daylight was quickly diminishing, we decided to pack it in and hit the road.
Move it on Over
Since we were driving through the countryside (and since we had just left the Tin Bar), we felt it appropriate to listen to the tinny recordings of Hank Williams and friends on Pandora. Listening to the haunting twang and cowl of Williams and others helped paint a perfect scene for the trip.
The drive itself was fairly uneventful, and seemed to breeze on by until we reached Petaluma. Following our directions, we turned off into what appeared to be a large section of business addresses with a strip mall across the street. It seemed an ill-fitting place for a place to turn on drunk mode, but sure enough, tucked in between engineering buildings was the sign for Lagunitas Brewery & Taproom.
In the Garden of Eden
The Lagunitas Tap Room was planned as our first stop on the tour because of its inexplicable closing time of 10pm. Luckily for us, this area of Petaluma wasn’t much to look at anyway so we weren’t heartbroken about not staying overnight. However, the Lagunitas Tap Room is a wonderful gem that seems hidden in plain sight.
Boasting a nice outdoor seating area with live music, gravel and plenty of picnic tables, vines and hedges lined the outdoor encampment and gave it a garden, or oasis feel. Connected to the garden was the Tap Room itself, with a bar in the middle and tables surrounding it. The room was not very large, but was well adorned with brightly colored paint and very surreal, trippy paintings and movie posters. It had a very Humboldt vibe to it, including our waitress who looked like the Renaissance Faire type.
We ordered 2 oz. samplers of their beer, 6 in total each. I tried some of their more experimental offerings including the port barrel-aged Hairy Eyeball and their Censored Copper Ale. Steve-O had picked a winner in the Wet-Hopped IPA, as well as the Hop Stoopid and Maximus IPA (him being a fan of the hoppy beers, as was I, but I was here to “experiment”).
Our food was good, some artichoke cheese dip. After we had our beers we were about ready to leave, when I decided to order a Bourbon Cappuccino Stout float. It’s sort of like a root beer float, minus the root, and adding ALCOHOL. I have to say – that was a terrible idea. Was it tasty? Yes. Was it the right thing to drink not even a quarter of the way through our trip? Probably not. Luckily it settled fine and I never had to taste it coming back up, but I’m still attributing my hangover the next day to that decision.
That, and the copious amounts of other beer we drank.
Overall, Lagunitas had a nice facility and had some good beers, but aside from their hoppier offerings and their go-to IPA, I wasn’t ready to declare them my favorite. We didn’t strike up much conversation with the waitress, but I was able to make a pretty girl think I was stupid when I asked what the SSU on her sweatshirt stood for (here’s a hint: when you’re in Sonoma County, it probably has something to do with Sonoma). But that wouldn’t be the last time I would make a girl think I was stupid on this trip, or ever.
On the Road Again
We had almost had our fill of Hank Williams when Willie Nelson came on with the above-mentioned tune. This kicked up our spirits a notch and reinvigorated us for the rest of the night on the road to Novato to head to Moylan’s.
We reached the Travelodge in Novato, a nice dump off the side of the freeway that would service us fine. Two beds, a roof over our heads and running water? We’ll take it. We hailed a cab to take us to Moylan’s, which was a little over a mile away. This cab ride was pricier than anything I had ever paid in San Francisco, which was strange considering the short distance and the fact we were in bleedin’ Sonoma County. On the way we saw a dive bar called The Viking Lounge, and we both decided we needed to stop there on the way back. Little did we know what the Viking had in store for us…
To be continued…